Selective Hearing: Why Your Husband and Children Ignore You

Selective hearing can be overcome by good communication strategies; put down the paper and listen!.

When my daughter was younger, I used the “ice cream” test to see if she was ignoring me or if she may not be hearing well. If I asked her to do something and she ignored me, I would ask (in the same tone of voice), “Do you want some ice cream?” Her head would immediately pop up, she would be thrilled about getting dessert, and I would have mixed feelings: happy she was hearing me but annoyed that she had “selective hearing”.

 This test also works well with husbands.

Selective hearing refers to when a person appears to only hear what is important to them. It has nothing to do with hearing acuity; it happens due to the way the brain prioritizes sounds. In children, when too many sound sources bombard the brain, the brain reacts by “tuning out” what seems less important. Men are often the classic example of selective hearing, but women are guilty as well.

Multiple sounds inundate us every day. Picture a typical weekday morning: The television news is on, the birds are chirping, the coffee pot is gurgling, the dishwasher is running, your spouse is talking to you, and you are listening for the sounds of the shower upstairs to make sure your child is getting ready for school. Despite all these sounds, you immediately hear the traffic report that concerns the route you normally drive. Your brain recognized that information as important and allowed that information to be noticed.

The brain handles sensory information automatically at lower levels of our awareness. When sensory information (including sound) comes in, the brain processes it by:

  • Filtering and enhancing – such as alerting to your name being called.
  • Selective Perception – such as not being able to enjoy a delicious meal when anxious.
  • Sensory Contrast – such as the difference in brightness of a candle in a dark room versus the same candle outside in the sunshine.
  • Prioritizing – such as the feel of your clothes is unimportant unless there is a tag abrading the skin.

This processing is necessary and can be helpful; one example of these processes at work can be seen in the cocktail party effect. In a group of people, with multiple conversations and noise in all directions, the brain is able to tune into the person that is the most important to hear and ignore the other conversations going on. Another example is the way a new mom seems to develop super hearing when it comes to hearing her baby cry and will wake up immediately but sleep through other, louder sounds.

How should you deal with selective hearing?

  1. First, make sure there truly isn’t a hearing problem. In children, middle ear fluid is a common cause of fluctuating hearing loss. In adults, high frequency hearing loss associated with aging will make it more difficult to understand speech. A simple hearing test by an audiologist can determine if there are any underlying hearing problems that need to be addressed.
  1. Obtain attention before talking. Say their name, a gentle touch, and establishing eye contact are all good ways to make sure the brain is ready to receive the information you want to provide. Make sure the earbuds are out, the tv is muted, or the phone/computer is not being used when you are trying to have a conversation.
  2. Make it short. After about 6 minutes, most adults will not sustain attention if the topic in not interesting to them. For children, one or two words may be all that is needed: “Pajamas!” instead of, “I want you to go upstairs, find your yellow pajamas and put them on, and don’t forget to put your dirty clothes in the hamper.”
  3. Most importantly, model good listening. Give your undivided attention to others and ask they do the same in return. It’s a way to improve hearing without having anything to do with the ears.


What is Selective Hearing? Wise Geek. Accessed 05/30/2015 from

Bess, F.H., & Humes, L. (2008). Audiology: The Fundamentals. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

Jastreboff, P (1999). The Fifth Course on Tinnitus Retraining Therapy for Management of Tinnitus & Hyperacusis. Emory University. Written. 

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